Around 2,500 years ago, the Greek city of Athens developed a novel concept: dēmokratía, the rule of the people. Though their system was far from perfect, Athens laid important moral and philosophical groundwork that stood in contrast to the dynasties of pharaohs and emperors. Leave it to the Greeks, two and a half millennia since developing the concept, to remind the world of today what democracy is supposed to look like.
Greece’s ongoing debt predicament is not unlike the subprime mortgage crisis in America. Lenders issued bad loans which the debtors proved unable to pay back. In Greece, those lenders have been both private banks and fellow Eurozone nations. As in America, rather than allow the banks to eat the loss, what’s being demanded instead is taxpayer sacrifice.
In the U.S., that meant a massive taxpayer-funded bailout of the banks, which are now thriving better than ever even as the American people continue to struggle. In Greece, it means further cuts to already gutted social programs and state pensions.
On July 5, 61 percent of the Greek people voted “no” in a referendum that, if passed, would have put into place even more stringent austerity measures. Austerity, in essence, means squeezing from the poor to pay back the rich. As Maria Kladi, a Greek pensioner who voted “no” in the referendum, told Politico, “I voted no because there’s no way we can accept being serfs in our own country.”
All this is to pay back the Troika, a consortium of powerful bankers consisting of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. Vermont Senator and 2016 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders summed up the inherent immorality of the situation well: “At a time of grotesque wealth inequality, the pensions of the people in Greece should not be cut even further to pay back some of the largest banks and wealthiest financiers in the world.”
One possible consequence of Greece defaulting on its debt obligations is ejection from the European Union, nicknamed Grexit by the media. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a member of Greece’s left-wing political party Syriza who was elected in January specifically for his firm anti-austerity stance, delivered a new plan to the EU on July 9. If the proposal fails or is turned down by Greece’s creditors, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen to Greece and the Eurozone.
Most of the harshest criticism of Greece comes from established bases of power at the Troika and the European Union, including from European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Schulz and others have called for Tsipras to step down while a solution is brokered, confirming the suspicions of many that Tsipras simply isn’t liked for his populist, left-wing positions. But Syriza, to their credit, is standing up to the pressure, accusing the EU of economic terrorism.
All the dangerous fallout of a Greek default comes from actions that will be taken by the Troika. The entire principal, not just a payment, will be demanded instantly; no new loans or bailouts will be offered; and Greece may be kicked out of the European Union. Any party who enters into a contract should do their best to uphold it, but this treatment of Greece is nothing more than the wealthiest people in the world becoming outraged that the poor are daring to not pay them.
Imagine that the Troika is the mafia and Greece is a small restaurant. In Mafioso fashion, the Troika is barreling down on Greece hard, and they don’t give a damn how many of the poorest Greek people are affected. All that matters to the Troika is that they get theirs. Maybe the restaurant asked for a favor in its hour of need. It should pay back its obligations. But few would argue the loan sharks are morally in the right.
In Greece, the will of the people is, for now, triumphing over the will of the Troika. This is what makes the situation so dangerous for wealthy elites. Their panic is that this kind of behavior may catch on. Other nations in the Eurozone and people all over the world may realize they don’t have to bend their lives to the whim of vulture lending.
For Americans, the Greek people and Syriza are providing a teachable moment. They’re demonstrating the kind of moxie Americans should have when dealing with our own burdensome debt obligations. Using Syriza as an example, Americans should say no to foreclosures, no to student loans, and no to the grotesque profit orientation of the medical-industrial complex. Real, flesh-and-blood human needs should never be sacrificed to balance a billionaire’s books.
Let fall what may. Big finance has rigged the global economy in such a way that any calamities resulting from their behavior fall on poor and working people. But anything they do, any reaction they take, is out of fear. They know as well as anyone that it takes people more than money to produce goods, transport supplies, provide healthcare, grow food, and care for children. And it takes people to operate a democracy, not banks.
Elites in government, business, finance, and military sectors hail democracy as an ideal form of social organization while working relentlessly to undermine it. Greece has finally had enough. And in America, debt resistance movements and the surging popularity of Bernie Sanders point to a similar revolution. If big finance falls, it need not be Armageddon. It may even be the best thing the world can hope for.